Afghanistan was rocked by violence once again this past Sunday when at least 57 people were killed in Kabul as they lined up to register to vote for upcoming elections. On the same day, another attack on a voter registration center in Baghlan killed at least five. The recent violence is aimed at derailing the country’s attempt at consolidating its fragile democracy, a goal groups like the Taliban and ISIS may just achieve if more is not done to shore up the electoral process and insecurity ahead of planned elections.
Spring is always a difficult time for Afghanistan. April and May mark the harvest of opium poppies in the southern regions of the country where most of the illicit crop is grown. This also marks the time when many terrorist and rebel groups become active again following a relative lull in fighting during the country’s harsh winters. The pattern is so regular, groups like the Taliban have taken to officially announcing the start of “fighting season.”
The constant political violence is what has led to parliamentary elections being postponed for the past three years. Facing increasing frustration from voters and international partners alike, earlier this month President Ashraf Ghani announced the elections are now schedule for October 20. The parliamentary elections are seen as a test run for the larger presidential elections scheduled for next year. Yet after decades of conflict and the recent return of thousands of refugees from Pakistan and Iran, the government has an uphill battle in being prepared by October.
The biggest hurdle is that of voter registration. Previous elections in 2009 and 2014 were marred by allegations of corruption, largely connected to the voter registry. In order to achieve a voter turnout level that will grant credibility to the results, as well as stem any possible corruption, a new voter registry is being created from scratch. In a country facing constant insecurity and where the majority of voting-aged adults do not have identification papers, this is a daunting task to complete before October.
Which is why Sunday’s attack in Kabul could be devastating to the process.
Occurring just a week after the first phase of the country’s registration drive began – focusing on the relatively secure provincial capitals – the attack sends a clear message to those who may be thinking of participating the elections.
Other attacks last week against registration centers and electoral officials in the provinces of Nangarhar, Badghis and Ghor make clear that such violence will not be limited to the political and economic capitals of Kabul and Kandahar. Even during this first phase, voter registration levels have been lower than anticipated, a trend that is likely to continue as voter registration moves to more insecure rural locations next. And low voter turnout will do nothing to fix the general the disenchantment bred by the flawed elections in 2009 and 2014.
The attacks also indicates the government has more than one enemy threat to contend with. While the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks in Nangarhar and Ghor, it was the local branch of ISIS (also referred to as ISIS-KP) who carried out the attack in Kabul. In that instance, the attack appeared aimed at not just disrupting the process, but also targeting religious and ethnic minorities, in this case Shiite Hazaras who are already marginalized in Afghan society.
The interference by rebel groups is a serious obstacle for the ultimate success of the elections. Out of 7,300 planned polling centers, at least 900 are currently under the control of the Taliban and another 3,000 face grave security threats. ISIS-KP does not control territory in Afghanistan the same way the Taliban does, but it is more than capable of disrupting the electoral process throughout the country, and especially in high population areas like Kabul. The series of attacks, just a week into the registration process, foretells a difficult road ahead to the elections, if these elections do not ultimately get postponed as they have been before.
Thus, 40 years after the communist coup that plunged Afghanistan into conflict in 1978 and 17 years after the US invasion, democracy is still more of an ideal rather than a norm in Afghan life. The government has set forth a solid electoral process plan, but in the current climate it may be overly ambitious. As usual, security remains the elusive key to finding a lasting solution. Despite the growing political fatigue of the international community in dealing with the conflict in Afghanistan, now is the time when political will and partnership is needed most. With it, the country made have a chance of finally turning a corner with these elections, but without out it is almost certainly destined to fail.